For a structure that served the purpose that made it famous for less than 30 years, Alcatraz is an enduring monument to a bygone era.
By the time it first came into use as a U.S. Federal Penitentiary in 1934 prohibition had already ended. (Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to outlaw the sale of alcoholic beverages was passed in January 1919, but repealed in December 1933.) Nonetheless, Alcatraz’ most famous figure from that activity, Al Capone, took up ‘residence’ from 1934 to 1939, when he was released.
Arriving not long after Capone’s release was another prisoner, almost as well known. Robert Stroud was transferred from Leavenworth in 1942. Nicknamed the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’, he wrote several books both before and during his incarceration. (The nickname was popularized by a best-selling book and subsequent film.) Ironically, he kept no birds at Alcatraz.
But apart from its inmates, the prison offered several reasons for its fame, or infamy.
Long isolated, the island a few miles off the coast of San Francisco housed a military prison beginning in 1907. In the early 1930s Federal prison system officials decided to use the location to hold its most hardened criminal detainees. It was thought that the cold, rapidly moving currents off the coast would discourage escape attempts.
Even so, many tried. Evidence of the results – bullet holes and blood stains – can still be seen on some of the walls.
Guards were hired that were thought to be much less subject to bribes. When Capone arrived and attempted it, he was thrown into solitary confinement. Prisoner’s were entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. All else was a privilege to be earned by good behavior.
After its closure in 1963 (among other problems, the facility was twice as costly to maintain as other prisons), the island was mostly unused for the next 10 years.
In 1973, Alcatraz was incorporated into the burgeoning National Parks system and began its career as a tourist attraction. Since then, over 14 million visitors have taken the 10-minute boat ride from Pier 41 to see ‘The Rock’.
The tour encompasses an introductory video explaining the history of the prison and the island. At the site are books, audio guides and other items. Tour guides then direct the group up the hill to the cell house.
The audio guide contains former correctional officers and inmates describing what life was like at the prison. Tour guides provide interesting commentary while visitors explore Al Capone’s cell and other areas.
Touring after dark is especially good for getting a sense of the dismal living conditions. Since San Francisco stays light in the summer long after the tour leaves, that can only be done in winter. But conditions then are particularly unpleasant, so decide how much authenticity you want to experience.
Both the boat rides to and from, as well as the island itself can be windy and cold, so dress appropriately. Of course, San Francisco can get quite warm in the summer, as well. Dress in layers. Between the ride and the tour a great deal of standing and walking is involved, not all of it on level ground. Be prepared for some exercise.
Tickets generally sell out, sometimes weeks in advance. Plan ahead by purchasing from Blue and Gold Fleet at www.blueandgoldfleet.com or call the number listed at the site.